The OED defines ‘gala’ as ‘a festive occasion’. In the ballet world this usually translates as a handful of stars, a mile of tulle and more triple fouettés than you can shake a stick at. Most balletgoers could put a half-decent programme together in their sleep: a firecracker duet (Swan, black), the odd solo party piece (Swan, dying), a dash of romance (Romeo, Manon) and the dear old Don Q. pas de deux. After a year being drip-fed small-screen ballet, the prospect of a little bling and bravura generated a buzz of excitement around Dame Darcey Bussell’s charity gala. The Hall (Albert) was hired, sponsors were found, eight major companies (six ballet, two contemporary) were available and generous punters paid £240 a ticket expecting big names and greatest hits. They got precious little of either.
It was, of course, all in a very good cause, including eight local dance charities nominated by the participating companies. This meant that after each live number we were served a side order of video telling us what sterling work they were all doing plus fly-on-the-wall footage of people who can’t actually dance being encouraged to do so. No one doubts the benefits of community-dance initiatives — diversity, inclusivity and lashings of self-esteem — but it isn’t always an easy watch and often needs a big spoonful of sugar to render it palatable.
Scottish Ballet got matters off to a resolutely low-calorie start, twerking and grinding to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik in Sophie Laplane’s Dextera. Mozart is Teflon to all but the greatest dancemakers and supplementing the fine playing of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia with conga drums and maracas did nothing to help. Northern Ballet’s dancers were in infinitely better shape, but the fretful duet from Jonathan Watkins’s 1984 is hardly a party piece. English National Ballet were similarly downbeat in Yuri Possokhov’s Senseless Kindness in which two couples reinterpret Vasily Grossman’s second world war epic Life and Fate in an exhausting display of lifts, leaps and chaînés (straight sixes here for the gyroscopic Francesco Gabriele Frola). Birmingham Royal Ballet brought the pas de deux from Cinderella, danced by Momoko Hirata and César Morales. David Bintley’s choreography is cookie-cutter stuff but it was the first (and only) tutu of the night and the masked audience gave muffled squeals of gratitude. New Adventures raised a few laughs with Matthew Bourne’s 1988 Spitfire, a parody pas de six performed in long johns and string vests. The cadet branch of Rambert powered through Sama, an acrobatic 11-man ensemble by New York dancemaker Andrea Miller. It would have made a perfectly respectable finale but this honour was reserved for the Royal Ballet in Valentino Zucchetti’s Scherzo. It is a tribute to the company’s strength in depth that Zucchetti’s tricky lifts and filigree pointework could be delivered with such verve by dancers from the lower ranks, but at those prices I think they might have fielded a star or two.
All was explained at Covent Garden the following evening when the Royal Ballet unveiled its latest post-lockdown programme: a trio of 20th-century masterpieces featuring nine principals and six first soloists. It began with Apollo, created for Diaghilev in 1928 by the 24-year-old George Balanchine. Vadim Muntagirov, making his Covent Garden debut in the role, is almost too perfect for the clumsy newborn god of the opening scenes. The sculptural perfection of those legs and feet, the nobility of line, the lordly turn of the head means that he can pull focus without dancing a step. His three muses, Yasmin Naghdi, Mayara Magri and Anna Rose O’Sullivan, had been superbly coached by the Balanchine Trust’s Patricia Neary to embrace the choreography’s contradictions: part prima ballerina, part showgirl.
Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, set to 18 Chopin piano pieces, is a joyous stream of characterful, mix-and-match duets, trios and ensembles. The folk-inflected choreography is packed with challenge but there is never any sense of display for its own sake. Alexander Campbell unravelled his grande pirouette with heedless insouciance. Marianela Nunez drifted on the breeze with a nibbling pas de bourrée. Federico Bonelli leaped and span like a man half his age. William Bracewell, poached from Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2017, hasn’t always lived up to his early promise (as the old school reports used to say) but he was on fire on Friday night, inhabiting the music with throwaway grace: feet like compass points; arms like smoke.
In between came Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux danced on fast-forward by Natalia Osipova. Reece Clarke made a fine foil for the Russian star’s ferocious virtuosity. Usefully tall, Byronically handsome with an impressive clean-and-jerk lift, the young Scot is a born porteur but he coped elegantly with the showy solo variations, unleashing a fine, buoyant jump. At last: some genuine gala material.